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Deion Jumah – Ghost story

Deion Jumah
Lawrence Lustig/Boxxer
'They built this craziness in me and it stuck. I think like a mad man.' Deion Jumah tells Elliot Worsell what drives him and why he cannot let himself lose

THE first time I met Deion Jumah he was days away from defending his title in the 2012 Senior ABA Championships, as well as hungover on account of drinking a bottle of vodka the night before. He was 22 back then – which is to say, young and dumb – but, even at 22, possessed a refreshing and unflinching honesty at odds with both his sport and those it corrupts.

“Do you ever feel like you just don’t belong anywhere in the world?” he asked, functioning on just an hour’s sleep. “I’ve walked up and down this road plenty of times over the years, but still don’t like it. It’s still not me. Everybody walking past seems like they’re from another planet.”

Jumah was at the time strolling from Sloane Square tube station along the King’s Road and was hiding from commuters and shoppers, or aliens to his mind, beneath the hood of a light blue top. It was a warm day, and there was no need for the top, let alone its hood, yet his attire, rather than chosen for warmth, offered Jumah protection, which is all that mattered. It offered protection from other people and it offered protection from a world he preferred to see in the dark, with his mind ideally altered. “I like Guinness and I like spirits,” he said. “When I’m not training, I’ll be drinking every day. And when I’m training it will be every other day. It’s bad.”

A comment like that would have been shocking enough to hear if delivered by a boxer during the off-season, but hearing it from Jumah when so close to a fight sounded numerous alarm bells. To then exacerbate this unease, he mentioned having taken a recent trip to McDonald’s, expressing a particular fondness for their milkshakes, and confessed he was nowhere near as fit as he had been for the previous year’s ABA final, back when he had something to prove.

“This is it now, though,” he said, sitting at one of the outside tables at Henry J. Bean’s bar and grill and pointing at the glass of water in front of him. “Nothing but water if I’m going to make weight.” He stopped then as cigarette smoke drifted from another table towards his. “Do you want to move tables?” I asked, to which he replied, “No. I like being around people smoking. It makes me feel normal.”

The flipside of normal, of course, is a fighter and the fight for which Jumah, the fighter, was preparing was to take place at York Hall on April 12 and would be his third ABA final. It was to also be his last bout as an amateur, with Jumah conceding that amateur boxing had become more and more like a “hobby” in recent months and that success had created only complacency. “You only fight over three rounds, or nine minutes, so can afford to cheat from time to time,” he explained. “You can get away with so many silly things. Three rounds into a pro fight and the fight has barely started. You can’t treat the pro game like a hobby. You either have to live it or prepare yourself to be hurt and damaged.

“Also, because I’ve had my heart broken by the amateur game so many times over the past two or three years my respect for it is minimal. That’s probably part of the reason why I don’t train as hard as I should.”

Fed up, Jumah compared himself to a dog, a pit bull, and revealed he had been given just two tickets for his upcoming ABA final. He said had it not been for his coaches at Dale Youth, Mick Delaney and Peter Carson, he would have turned pro long before he eventually did.

That relationship – the one with Dale Youth, Mick and Peter – went back to 2009, which was the year Jumah, then 19, contacted George Groves, an old friend from his kickboxing days, and asked him if he knew how to go about becoming a professional boxer. It had been a despairing call and was one largely motivated by the fact Jumah’s kickboxing career, which started at nine and took him to major titles at 18, had screeched to a halt following a hand injury. This meant he hadn’t done a single day’s training in over a year and had ended up working as a waiter while slipping into a depression. He had also enrolled on a sports science degree at university, only to quit soon after. “Once you’ve been a fighter nothing else will make you happy,” he said. “I truly believe that.”

Alas, in order to at least feel something, Jumah had soon gravitated towards the clubbing scene and sought happiness there instead. “There were times,” he said, “when I’d be at a drum and bass rave buzzing off my tits and a voice in my head would be saying, ‘Deion, what are you doing? Don’t you want to be a fighter?’ But then there’d be another voice saying, ‘F**k that, you’re happier now than ever, why would you want this to stop?’ There would always be that constant battle. Ultimately, though, I knew I had talent and had to do something with it.”

“So, I called George one day and said, ‘Look I really want to turn pro. Help me,’” Jumah recalled. “I hadn’t had a single amateur bout but was convinced I could turn pro, win a British and a world title and all my problems would be solved. George must have been freaked out by the call, and he asked me whether I intended on having a couple of amateur fights before turning pro. I didn’t really care at this point, but I listened to what he was saying and said, ‘Ok, I’ll box amateur first,’ and he promised to sort something out and call me back.”

Groves called Jumah back the next day. “George said, ‘I’m going down Dale Youth tonight, do you want to come?’ I had nothing better to do, so I joined him. I spoke to Mick Delaney, the nicest guy ever, and that was enough for me. I also enjoyed mixing with positive people again; people who had goals. I needed that kind of company at that stage in my life.” Though he lost in the final of his first Senior ABA Championships in 2010, Jumah competed again the following year and this time fared better, beating Jamie Hughes by 31 points to 15 in the final. It was after that the selectors came knocking and he found himself both racking up England caps and being invited to train with the Great Britain squad ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games. However, despite this momentum, it wasn’t long before Jumah became disillusioned with the squad and amateur boxing as a whole. Not helped by being stuck between international weight classes (too big for light-heavyweight and too small for heavyweight), he resigned himself to never competing at an Olympic Games.

“The Olympic dream never appealed,” he said. “I didn’t grow up watching amateur boxing. Amateur boxing was never something I wanted to pursue, in fact. The whole idea was to turn pro, make money, and start knocking guys out. I grew up watching pros like Chris Eubank and ‘Prince’ Naseem (Hamed). They were proper showmen, I thought.”

He described the training he did in Sheffield as “pointless” and suggested it had even made him a worse fighter. Only the sanctuary of Dale Youth, in fact, as well as the pull of defending his ABA title, battled against his desire to quit the sport circa 2012. “I could turn pro at light-heavyweight, but it would be hard,” he mused back then. “At cruiserweight, I think I could get a British title within three fights.”

Ten years later, Jumah has a 14-0 (7) professional record and is preparing to fight fellow Londoner and former British champion Richard Riakporhe in a 10-round main event on Sky Sports. Now 32, he has won Southern Area and English cruiserweight titles as a pro but has yet to fight for a British title and is aware he is behind schedule and, in some respects, making up for lost time. His pro career has so far been one blighted by injury, promotional wranglings, and the no less problematic issue of being a rugged, hard-hitting southpaw with the quietest voice in a room of social media-obsessed narcissists. Jumah these days goes by the nickname ‘The Ghost’, which, somewhat tellingly, has less to do with his ability to frighten and more to do with his propensity to go missing and his aversion to self-aggrandising. “I just can’t do it,” he said about shameless self-promotion. “I look at all these boxers chatting s**t on social media and feel like I’m from a different planet.”

By his own admission a complex figure, who spends as much time in his own head as he does in the gym, Jumah still hasn’t lost a fight since boxing Simon Barclay in 2010, but hasn’t progressed the way he would have wanted, either. Hampered by a recent retinal tear, now fixed, he remains forever fearful of being overlooked or, worse, forgotten, due to his low-key nature. Yet, ultimately, what drives and sustains Jumah is a belief that he is put together differently than the rest. For better or worse, he is a throwback to quieter, simpler times. For better or worse, having fought men when just a boy, he is built for pain – both delivering and enduring it.

Deion Jumah
Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

“One time I got knocked down with a spinning elbow to the face which broke my nose,” he said. “Then, when I was 16, I got knocked down heavily against a guy called Khalid Ismael, who became an MMA fighter and was a grown arse man with big power. My coach had lied that I was 18 in order for me to get a fight, so it really was a case of man against boy. In the end, I pulled myself up from the knockdown and then knocked him out in the next round. He was gone, out cold, sleeping for 10 minutes. The next day I woke up and had pins and needles down one side of my body. That lasted for about a week and was proper scary.”

Revisiting his kickboxing days, and the purest fighting he has ever known, Jumah added: “When you’re asked to do 500 press-ups following a hard two-hour session, you start to forget about pain and tiredness. It was especially hard for me, too, because I’m an asthmatic and there were times when I was out of breath and genuinely thought I was in trouble. Am I going to die? Have they taken it too far this time? What if I just stop breathing? Nobody offered me any sympathy at kickboxing, though. I had to get over that crisis myself.

“I owe the f**ked up mentality I have now to those guys (his kickboxing coaches). They built this craziness in me and it stuck. I think like a mad man, thanks to them. The thought of losing never enters my mind.”

Ten years ago, while waiting to defend his ABA title, Jumah killed time at a hotel not far from York Hall, where he told me about a previous bout – a win – that sent him spiralling towards a bout of depression. “I didn’t leave my bedroom for two days,” he said. “I get like that sometimes. I’m a thinker, I keep things to myself, and I don’t have many people to help me talk things through. Imagine what I’m like when I lose. It’s not worth thinking about. “I suffer a lot from depression. It’s just something that’s there all the time. If I didn’t have boxing, and something to aim for, I’d be f**ked.

“But on the day of a fight you couldn’t meet a happier person. This is my day, my time. It feels like Christmas. I don’t think I’m ever happier than I am on fight day.”

If indeed a ghost, Deion Jumah has been brought back to life in recent months. Yet, more than that, having had to grieve the death of his own fighting career on multiple occasions, he now knows the value of life – that is, a fighting life – better than most.

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